Permaculture in city squares, school auditoriums and neighborhood meeting places. Interview with Killian O’Brien, Permaculture and Resilience Initiative, Detroit. by Willi Paul

An Invitation to Mutually Assured Succession
The concept for the ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit – Permaculture Design Course is inspired by Detroit’s efforts to re-imagine itself after decades of slow, steady decline. In Detroit, real green shoots arise in once-empty lots as individuals and organizations create community and market gardens as ways to beautify, create green spaces, provide fresh, nutritious food to city residents, create or recreate community, and pursue self-reliance as entrepreneurs in the food system. While some pursue food justice via gardens, others pursue racial and economic justice. Some do all three, many of them via a garden, or urban farm.

On some streets a rooster may crow, a goat bleat or a duck quack. Pheasants, raccoons, opossums and deer can be seen in various places. But this is not chaos and ruin, it is edge meeting edge, which is where magic happens. This is nature saying, “Join me. I haven’t forgotten you.” This is opportunity to design a regenerative, sustainable city. But the city is more than fallow fields and squawking chickens.

Old meets new as the Motor City becomes a city with a growing reputation for attracting entrepreneurs, artists and wanderers looking for niches, and filling them. Some are wary of the new, some embrace them. Tension like the surface tension of a bubble stretches until boundaries burst and edges blend creating magic and conflict. Techno whizzes bring the whiz-bang of new frontiers while social media rides a wave of enthusiasm for ethereal connectedness. Grace Lee Boggs sings a song of resistance to powers tangible and hidden while schools descend into chaos and overcrowding, and a new style of education seeks to rise from the ruins of industrialization.

Into the political crisis following the fall of Kwame Kilpatrick rises Mayor Dave Bing, bringing a new game, far from the basketball court, one where the stakes are very much higher. Assembling a cadre of corporations, experts and advisors, the Mayor and his select group set about the designing a future for Detroit. A Detroit from a corporate, growth-oriented view in which the citizens are engaged in meetings without dialogue and are asked to respond to pre-selected questions out of context and without any data, information or expression of what assumptions they are expected to consider. The claim is transparency, but little is known and less stated openly. The city is told people will be incentivized to move to renewed, walkable neighborhoods, but there is no money to make it happen – and they will be left behind with reduced or absent city services, but may do as they please in these left-behind “green” spaces.

An equal and opposite reaction is the response to every action. Not from the top, but from the bottom. Not behind closed, corporate and governmental doors, but in city squares, school auditoriums and neighborhood meeting places. Not in the name of growth, power and profit, but people, sustainability and community. Perhaps the people populating DetroitWorks can create a Perfect Possible Future, but sound principles of ecological engineering suggest this is ulikely. How can sustainability arise from a profit motive? How does a community grow when torn from its roots and transplanted without them? How can a city be the sum of only some of its parts?

An equal and opposite reaction, this is a call and an invitation to all to engage in a discussion and a deseign process where all are equally empowered and the process is open and interactive. We hope this process can lead to an alternative to the current DetroitWorks process, or help create a realignment and redesign of the DetroitWorks process, that has as its primary concerns community and sustainability.

A regenerative system is an inherently just system where all inputs and outputs, all elements, are connected, nested, creating a robust, yet, highly efficient whole where all is, and all are, equally valued.

The ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit PDC will fulfill all content requirements of a PDC, however, it is, possibly, unique in its goal to apply permaculture principles to produce a workable design for a major city as the course Design Project. Detroit’s difficult past, it’s vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, under-utilized workforce, abundant water, vacant land, and it’s industrial past all combine to make Detroit the perfect candidate to be the first large, post-industrial, post-carbon urban area.

The DetroitWorks project to redesign Detroit provides the teachers, staff and students with a unique opportunity to apply permaculture at a breadth and scale perhaps never attempted in a PDC. We hope to encourage persons involved in DetroitWorks to collaborate in this process and consider the resulting sustainable design elements as the Detroit Works project moves forward.

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Interview with Killian by Willi

What are your key principles in your community work? Who are you members / clients and what are they searching for?

Our key principles are two-fold, or perhaps tri-fold. Our understanding of the current global condition is based in science and data indicating the system as a whole is badly out of balance, and like a top spinning out of control, is well into the wobbly part of the spin. Anyone familiar with non-linear systems, Chaos Theory or the work of Catton, Diamond, Tainter, et al., will recognize this as approaching tipping points, or bifurcations, in the system, i.e., preludes to significant changes, possibly the collapse of the system as a whole.

This is a Big Deal, and the underlying principles are that knowledge is power, skills are survival, and that we, as a society, must choose a path together, and that starts with an understanding of conditions, proceeds through a filter of common ethics – People/community, being part of the ecological system, and sharing surplus to keep the system healthy and balanced – and ends with the application of habitat design principles that bring us back into balance with the ecological services of the planet, and ultimately understanding that our human intelligence , ingenuity and creativity are ecological services to the planet, and so must be applied using the patterns, structures and systemic designs found in natural systems.

We see everyone as a partner/client/neighbor. We live in a system, not within discreet parts, and see no way to separate ourselves from any other part of the system. What are they searching for? We find the awareness of the above issues to be low and that most people, even those who understand the data, are searching for solutions that are a lot like today. They are largely searching for comfort, solace, familiarity. It’s inertia in the system. We are trying to bring clarity to the fact that unstable systems inherently seek a new equilibrium. That is, we can’t stabilize what is, but must understand that a new, and healthier, way forward must be found or the new equilibrium will be one hostile to us.

In my work, permaculture is primarily spiritual. Is this true for you?

No. I address this on our website on the “Permaculture” page. Briefly, a given person, group or community can apply whatever beliefs they wish, and will, but spirituality is based in specific ideologies and belief systems that are not universally shared which makes them a poor vehicle for societal and global change. We must work around such things on the meta scale or we cannot but fail because we cannot align 7 billion different ideological stances.

We can, however, all come to understand what science and nature tell us are sustainable designs and, ultimately, slowly, perhaps allow our ideologies to be reconstructed through the lens of natural systems. Sustainable, and more so, regenerative, design is inherently just, balanced, fair, caring. There is no need to layer ideologies on top of that, and doing so might be said to be inherently destructive since most ideologies are based in beliefs having nothing to do with the natural services we are and are part of, thus are not bound by nature’s constraints.

Are you a “green alchemist?”

LOL… I suppose so, if by that you are asking, am I trying to turn waste, imbalance and separation into inputs, balance and whole systems.

Is there a global permaculture revolution rising now? What are the positive and negative forces herein?

Maybe. Permaculture is treated too much like a noun and not enough like a verb. People like o own things, nouns, so there is a lack of cooperation. And, people are just trying to survive, so make choices that primarily benefit themselves. I try not to do that and suppose I fail at it. But we see among permaculturists what we see in all human systems, and something any traveler with their eyes open sees: people are people are people. Are permaculturists more systems thinkers and perhaps working more within the lay version of permaculture ethics, the triple bottom line, than others? Yes. Are we any less human? No. Is the knowledge spreading? Yes. Is it anywhere near as widespread as it needs to be? No. At this rate of change we will fail, which is why I am so vocal and uncompromising in speaking of what conditions truly are. If our scientists are scared – and they are not inherently an excitable lot – then we know we are far, far behind the curve.

Do you know about the Worldwide Permaculture Network (WPN)?

Yes. I’ve added our site to the system, but we’re booted out and are having to re-apply. There’s hopefully not a problem with a tiny group of people running this, and particularly one doing the bulk of the actual work. It’s potentially a fabulous tool, but I’d be much more comfortable if they gifted it to a consortium.
What is sacred about the practice of permaculture?

Everything. The sacred is of the system and permaculture celebrates the very nature of the system.

Are there new myths rising from the practice of permaculture?

I sure hope not. The myths we have are not overmuch helpful.

Who can teach for Permaculture and Resilience Initiative?

Oh, that’s a can of worms! Simple answer? Anyone. Long answer? It depends on what they are teaching, whether a workshop or a course, and the needs and conditions of our constituents. A primary goal of PRI-De is to build local talent over time such that it’s a place run by, and for the benefit of, the immediate community first. That is, being in Detroit, if we were eventually staffed by people primarily from Detroit, we would consider that a very good thing. For now, we try to access best in class as exemplified by our course beginning March 27 being led by Larry Santoyo and co-taught by Keith D. Johnson. However, the need is so vast and so immediate, we will teach as we must and with whom is available, including myself.

What does the USA look like in 2051 to you?

Slow change? Chaos transitioning to sustainability, but likely ultimately only achieved at by very localized communities, and that likely ultimately overwhelmed by climatic changes and undercut by energy declines. Rapid change? The birthing of a new paradigm I like to playfully, yet seriously, characterize as Hobbiton with a high tech backbone.

What is the alternative to a permaculture society, Killian?

Collapse. Those who have studied past societies and civilizations make a compelling case: Try to fix the problems inherent in complexity and overshoot with greater complexity, and fall, or simplify and survive.

What real impact does Permaculture and Resilience Initiative have on the public at large?

Not much. We are still outsiders in a large city with a small city social structure. It takes time to be seen as trustworthy, sincere and committed. And, I never imagined I’d still be PRI-De at this point. I naively assumed the goals were the thing and we’d have a group of people together who can do all the things I am not good at, but that hasn’t been the case. It’s my failing, of course, but lately more people are hearing our voice. There’s some traction building. Hopefully we’re learning to speak with a voice that can be heard and it will build into something. Whether it is as PRI-De or some other structure, I don’t care.

There are people working on building guilds, people doing their own teaching, groups developing a city of farmers, etc. I dearly, urgently hope the various individuals and organizations will become one co-operative community in a tangible way as we move forward, specifically with regard to permaculturists. There are groups working at this, though I fear they are working under the assumption time is still not as immediate a constraint as I, and others, see it. I hope I am very wrong about rapidity of change.

Connections –

Killian O’Brien
Permaculture and Resilience Initiative

Admin at

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Grab a shovel and a sweat band at openmythsource – reservoir


About [ open myth source ]

The [open myth source] project gathers conversations, symbols, songs, visual art and stories. Building a house for Myth in the Sustainability Age.
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